From cheap overseas holidays and cool Britannia to the rise of the gastropub, balsamic glaze was a middle-class staple that became an icon of the 1990sby Josh Barrie / October 14, 2019 / Leave a comment
Britain’s Balsamic Glaze Days kicked-off in the 1980s. The condiment, a versatile, sweet reduction made by adding sugar to balsamic vinegar and cooking it down to thicken, arrived during a time of chicken Kievs and Viennetta, vol au vents and trifle; when chicken satay was still mysteriously exotic and PizzaExpress was one of the most rousing haunts in town—or so I’m told.
“I can remember thinking it was quite delicious in the early years, and its inky, viscous blackness was so beautiful on the plate,” remembers food writer Debora Robertson. But she says its appeal faded over the years, such was its commonality. “Now I see a squiggle of glaze on a plate (usually somewhere in France) and I just think they’re phoning it in and they’ve given up. It’s bagged salad in liquid form.”
While balsamic glaze has its roots in the ‘80s, it isn’t an ‘80s icon. Its ubiquity started in the 1990s, a subsequence of the gastropub movement. In the late ‘90s, and well into the 2000s, balsamic glaze was deployed onto square white plates with such careless abandon it would not be overstepping to say it defined pub culture.
It was probably a combination of factors that help propel Italian food into such familarity. New Labour oversaw a time of surplus, where people felt they had money to spend. Trips to the Continent were democratised further, as were visits to nouveau gastropubs that attempted to echo the wining and dining of the Amalfi coast and Provence. Jamie Oliver’s inaugural television series, The Naked Chef, first aired in 1999. Balsamic glaze was quickly cemented as a middle-class inclination.
Liverpool-born publican Ben Evans, who now runs The Windmill, Clapham, remembers its glory years: “Back then I was working in branded places, so Slug & Lettuce—when the food used to be good—and briefly All Bar One.”
“It was every pub group development chef’s dream, a real flavour bomb that (they certainly thought) seemed to add sophistication. It was one of those ingredients that might have indicated a decent menu, at least in those days.”
Despite its popularity, its status appeared undimmed. Even in the haughtiest of establishments, you might have found the stuff drizzled in a zig-zag beside sun-blushed tomatoes and…